Thus far, my favorite album of 2012 is a yet-unnamed, yet-unreleased collection of seven songs by Richmond, Va., songwriter, bandleader and visionary Matthew E. White. Recorded in Richmond by a full house of horn and string players, singers, drummers, guitarists and bassists, White’s massive musical debut under his own name magnetizes elements of gospel, rock ’n’ roll, country, soul and show tunes into life-affirming pan-American glee. In the service of wise new songs about loving something in spite of the odds and living happily in spite of the struggles, choirs of voices erupt, lines of horns radiate, and rhythms march toward something better.
On Thursday, Sept. 6, in Fletcher Opera Theater, White and about 40 musicians from Richmond will do something that they haven’t done before and will likely never do again: From the woozy slink of “Hot Toddies” to the Spiritualized-sized eruption of “Brazos,” they’ll perform these seven songs in their entirety as Matthew E. White: One Incantation Under God. That choir and those horns, that frontman and those strings: They’ll all be there to recreate an album that, for every day for the last four months, I’ve listened to at least twice daily. Today, we’re happy not only to announce this very special engagement but also to unveil music from the album—to be co-released in August by the indomitable Hometapes label and White’s own production house, Spacebomb Records—for the very first time.
You might know the name or the flowing brown mane of Matthew White from his time in two bands: Years ago, the wild-flying Great White Jenkins stunned several times at the once-fertile arts space Bull City Headquarters, sharing a free and adventurous update of The Band’s spirited uplift. Later, it was White’s other band, the especially malleable jazz outfit Fight the Big Bull, that split bills with Megafaun, including its 2010 residency at Duke called Sounds of the South, with Justin Vernon and Sharon Van Etten.
In those bands, White was certainly a driving force, but he was also part of a much bigger picture. Being a pivotal part of a larger project also became White’s goal with Spacebomb Records, the old-school production house he started with some friends and fellow players in Richmond. Essentially, Spacebomb’s goal synchs to the bygone days of Stax or any number of labels that would bring a singer and possibly some songs into a studio to record with a crew of musicians that had a defined, perfected aesthetic. Before they could convince someone else to surrender their songs, though, the Spacebomb crew first needed to prove that they could actually make the process work. White became the label’s guinea pig. He was ready.
“I felt like I finally knew how I wanted to write. I knew harmonically how I wanted to express myself, and lyrically, too,” he says. “I think I’ve begun to feel comfortable writing songs and writing words in a way that is honest to me, not something I was grasping at.”
Cutting a path between Lambchop’s Nashville to Spiritualized’s Heaven, from Bobby Charles’ Louisiana to Randy Newman’s Los Angeles, from the dustiest Southern roads to the brightest metropolitan sound studios, Matthew White’s music is an immediate and refreshing blend of a dozen bold forms. This is a record that has nothing to do with current trends or crossover possibilities. It’s too powerful for such temporary considerations. It’s ready to be heard now, later and always.
On the morning of Jan. 5, 2012, an owner of Hometapes sent me an early copy of the record. By that afternoon, Hopscotch Director Greg Lowenhagen and I were figuring out how to get White to perform this stunning piece of music in its entirety here in Raleigh. Of all the shows we’ve presented in three years, from The Flaming Lips in City Plaza to the lineup we’re announcing next Wednesday, this is possibly our biggest project yet. We hope you come experience it in September.